Sino-Vietnamese border


In twenty-fourteen, I: Got waylaid in Denver after snow and de-icing delays on a flight from Washington to Burbank, California.  Shared Sunset Rolls and Fire Dragon Rolls, Sapporo and warm saké, with my little sister Stephanie, and then met The Invisible Woman in LA.  On foggy Venice Beach, wandered past muscle men, tattoo parlors, surfboards and funnel cakes, and contemplated the medical marijuana advertised for sale.  Caught glimpses of adorable houses, with secret patios and lazy cats, on a stroll through the Venice Walk-Streets.  Went window shopping on Abbott Kinney Boulevard.  Drove six hours to San Francisco from LA through a parched California landscape to meet my friend Jayne. Laughed at the antics of harbor seals at Fisherman’s Wharf and met Monarch butterflies that looked like clusters of densely packed brown leaves at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Monterey. Drove 17-Mile-Drive at Pebble Beach.  Sampled some wine on the Silverado Trail.  Saw the iconic cloud-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the deck of the Sausalito Ferry. Laughed at the antics of sea lions at Pier 39.  On the way back to LA, vicariously lived the high life at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.  Dropped by Old Mission Santa Barbara, walked through fan palms and California chaparral at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and ate fish tacos on Stearns Wharf.  Visited the garden at Mission Buenaventura in Ventura.  Met Rosie of wandering rose and listened to the reverberations of classic rock at Bob’s Big Boy‘s classic car show.  Was inspired by a Poets & Writers LIVE! event in Los Angeles, where I embarrassed myself in front of Chinese writer Da Chen (My Last Empress) when he asked me the for the title of my book and a business card (I had neither).  Had cocktails at the Brig and ate dinner out of a food truck on Abbott Kinney.  Took a hike with Rosie around Corral Canyon in Malibu and ate more fish tacos at Malibu Seafood.  Left behind sunny California to head back to icy Virginia (nomad, interrupted).

Click on any of the pictures below for a full-sized slide show.

Saw tundra swans and parchment-like leaves dangling like wind-chimes on American beeches at Mason Neck State Park. Was inspired by National Geographic’s 2013 Travelers of the Year.  Saw seagulls walking on water at ice-encased Annapolis Harbor.  Learned 20 things about Storytelling Photography from National Geographic photographers Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow.  Chased freight trains and photos along the CSX Main Line at Henryton, Maryland.  Suffered through snowstorm after snowstorm in Northern Virginia, and then searched for spring at Green Spring Gardens.  Heard the thundering roar of Great Falls while strolling with Alex, Bailey and Mike along the Patowmack Canal.  Took a photowalk through the hardscrabble part of Baltimore.  Found the gravesite of the patentee of the Ouija Board at Green Mount Cemetery.  Walked Richmond’s Monument Avenue 10k in the rain with my daughter Sarah.  Drifted with cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin in D.C.  Said “ahoy, matey!” to pirates at the Privateer Festival in Baltimore.  crisscrossed flowing streams & waterfalls at White Oak Canyon.  Stayed overnight at a sleep clinic to test for sleep apnea. Wandered through flowering trees at the Virginia Arboretum.  Was charmed by wisteria at Dumbarton Oaks.  Finally found spring, after a long and grueling winter, at Meadowlark Gardens.  Celebrated Sarah’s 30th birthday in Richmond by sipping wine with the whole family amidst Chihuly’s Red Reeds at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, topped off by a feast at Bacchus.  Cloistered myself at the Franciscan Monastery. Sampled wine and cheese with the family at Doukenie Winery.  Won prizes in photography competitions through Vienna Photographic Society and had my Hot air balloons over Cappadocia photo featured by National Geographic on Instagram.  Finished the third draft of my novel, Scattering Dreams of Stars, but never got around to sending out query letters.  Applied for 40 jobs stateside and didn’t get anything.  Applied for jobs in China and got an offer from Sino-Canadian International College of Guangxi University in Nanning.  Went on safari with sculptures of metal animals in the “American Metal” exhibit at the Corcoran in its last days.  Was awed by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Opened my heart to water lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  Worked on joining hearts with Mike at Eastern Market in D.C. Saw “Words & Letters” made into art at the Athenaeum.  Felt general malaise at a Civil War Encampment at Sully Plantation. (nomad, interrupted).

Searched in vain for a happy 4th of July, as both my mother-in-law and my father were admitted to the hospital; my father’s problem was corrected without complications, but my 88-year-old mother-in-law’s health went into decline and she went into hospice care in early July.  Went with Alex on a road trip to New Hampshire, where we stayed in a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee, seeking a reprieve from Shirley’s illness and our sadness.  Drove the Kancamagus Highway through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, topped by a hike at the Flume Gorge. Stopped to buy a bird nest ornament in a garden shop in charming Woodstock, Vermont, where I was mistaken for Alex’s girlfriend (ha!). Admired painted “meeses” and mountain lions in Bennington, and scrambled over rocks at Kaaterskill Falls in New York.  Returned home to watch helplessly as my mother-in-law continued to decline; she passed away on July 17.  Went in search of light-crazed sunflowers in memory of Shirley, who loved gardening.  Visited the George Washington Masonic National Memorial as we waited for Shirley’s memorial service, which was on Thursday, July 25.   Took our 12 1/2-year-old border collie, Bailey, to the vet when he got sick the day after Shirley’s memorial service; he died the next day, sadly, at the human age of 88.  Searched for summer, and solace, at Solomons, Maryland, where empty boats conversed in a language of their own, groaning, clanking, lamenting and whining.  Hiked at Calvert Cliffs State Park where a kid told me: “My dad says your name is Stranger.”  Dropped off my passport at the Chinese embassy to get my work visa, and while in D.C., stopped in unannounced at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral for a brief tour in darkness. Came full circle and revisited summer at Meadowlark Gardens, as I did when I first arrived back in Virginia from Oman (nomad, interrupted).

Shirley and Bailey: both left us in July

Shirley and Bailey: both left us in July

Sampled rum & grapefruit juice with Mike at Mango’s upon our arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Was coated like a sugar cookie by a maelstrom of sand at Ocean Park.  Savored every bite of mofongo — mashed plantains — at Raices in Old San Juan.  Had a close encounter with the Baño Nazi on Paseo de la Princessa.  Took a self-guided walking tour through colorful Old San Juan, admiring views of Bahia de San Juan along the periphery of El Morro.  Came face-to-face with an iguana at Castillo de San Cristobal and together we enjoyed views of the Atlantic.  Climbed into a cloud forest on the Mt. Britton Trail at El Yunque rain forest.  Ate fabulous Caribbean Benedicts at El Convento.  Sought shelter from the rain at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.  Visited the “ghost town” of Aguirre in the south of the island.  Was disappointed at Hacienda Buena Vista to see only the historical buildings and not any actual coffee plants.  Got roared at by painted lions at Ponce and took pictures of the historic firehouse and famous landmark, Parque de Bombas.  Looked in vain for 007 (“Bond, James Bond”) and Jodi Foster at the Arecibo Observatory, the setting for Goldeneye & Contact.  Enjoyed a day at the Ocean Park Beach and gorgeous sunset at El Morro before returning home to Washington. Continued to work with Mike on our reconciliation after our seven-year separation and felt good enough about it to go abroad again.  Spent the next two weeks getting ready to move to China.  Left the U.S. on August 30 (notes from north america).

Arrived in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on September 1 and was installed in a gritty apartment with a view over a lotus pond.  Spent the first couple of weeks in Nanning getting a phone, internet, a medical exam, and the visa.  Took a walk with another new teacher, Caleb, on Qing Xiu Shan in dreadful heat & humidity, where we saw koi in Sky Pond and a 1350-year-old Cycas King in the Cycad Garden.  Climbed to the top of Longing Tower where we saw views of Nanning and the Yongjiang River.  Encountered communication problems when haggling in a Chinese market.  Experienced the fringes of Typhoon Kalmaegi as it brushed past Nanning. Spent a frustrating day trying to figure out how to buy train tickets to Guilin.  Finally acquired a bicycle after much rigmarole and rode to Nanning Zoo, where I watched Chinese visitors feeding junk food to the animals.  Began fall semester on September 22.  Encountered students with funny English names: Maleah, Kitty, Yuki, Albert, Hebe, Lancy, Shally, Amber, Azura, Nyako, Spring, and best of all: Yoyo, Echo, Coco, Smoothies and Evita.  Heard tell of other teachers’ students: Biscuit, Yogurt and Potato.  Was flummoxed when trying to find simple household products such as shampoo, conditioner and floor cleaner at Nan Bai Supermarket.  Learned how to say Xièxiè (thank you), Ní hǎo (hello), and Wǒ yào yīgè daizi (I want one bag).

Overcame numerous communication problems and made it to Yangshuo for the National Holiday.  Took a motorized bamboo raft with hundreds of other Chinese tourists down the Li River to Xingping, the scene of the picture on China’s 20 yuan bill.  Strolled around Yangshuo and Green Lotus Hill, where I was surrounded by magical karst formations.  Met Audrey, the niece of an elementary school classmate of mine, at Demo Tiki Bar and then ate Thai food together, accompanied by lots of wine, at Rock-n-Grill.  Bicycled with Audrey through the Yangshuo countryside, where we took an almost-skinny-dip in the Yulong River.  Ate a late lunch at a Passion Fruit Leisure Farm.  Went on a motorbike tour through kumquat orchards to Xianggang Hill, where we saw karst formations with names like Nine Horse Fresco Hill, Lad Worships Goddess, and Grandpa Watching Apple.  Traipsed through the Seven Star Tea Plantation.  Took my own private bamboo boat ride down the Yulong River.  Returned to Nanning, where I began teaching an English Interest Course on Storytelling Photography.  Got hooked on Mad Men and watched all the seasons.  Walked through artistic trellises at the Guangxi Medicinal Plant Garden.  Encountered crazy communication problems on a trip to see Detian Waterfall on the Sino-Vietnamese border.  Straddled the border of China and Vietnam in a bamboo boat and was sprayed by the Ban Gioc-Detian Waterfall on my 59th birthday.  Received a cake for my birthday from the Student Union; I happily shared it with some of my colleagues, cherry tomato toppings and all.

Went to a student-teacher Halloween party on a sweltering night where everyone was sweating in their costumes.  Visited the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, where I saw excellent exhibits on Guangxi’s twelve indigenous ethnic groups.  Ventured to Nanning People’s Park where hordes of Chinese people were dancing, singing, and playing traditional instruments. Watched all 8 episodes of True Detective and began to watch Breaking Bad.  Took a trip to Ping’An, where a Zhuang guide led me on a hike to see Nine Dragons and Five Tigers and a Yao long-haired woman.  Posed in traditional costume at Seven Stars with Moon.  Took a 5-hour hike alone to the Longji Rice Terraces, where I got lost numerous times.  Spent an afternoon of disillusionment at Elephant Hill Park in Guilin.  Treated myself to a whole body massage, a foot massage and pedicure in Guilin to try to alleviate my four days of sickness while traveling.

Encountered a styrofoam lady on the way to Wal-Mart.  Watched a Chinese love story with English subtitles, Fleet of Time, that shed some light on the lives of my college students. Watched all 10 episodes of Fargo Survived another challenging Chinese bus ride to Yangmei Ancient Village. Spent Christmas day alone wandering downtown Nanning, sipping a Toffee Nut Latte at Starbucks, watching The Taking of Tiger Mountain at Wanda Cinema, and finally Skyping with my family in Virginia.  Went to a Christmas party arranged by my students, where I attempted to make proper dumplings, played and won a REAL game of Chinese checkers, and sang karaoke.  Went to a free acrobatics show in Nanning.

Happy New Year!  May all your dreams come true in twenty-fifteen. 🙂

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Categories: 2014, Abbott Kinney Boulevard, Aguirre, Alexandria, Americas, Annapolis, Arecibo Observatory, Asia, Burbank, California, Calvert Cliffs State Park, Cherry Blossom Festival, China, Colorado, D.C., Daxin, Denver, Detian Waterfall, Dumbarton Oaks, El Yunque National Forest, Expat life, Golden Gate Bridge, Great Falls Park, Guangxi Medicinal Plant Garden, Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guilin, Hearst Castle, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Longji Ancient Village, Longji Rice Terraces, Longsheng County, Los Angeles, Malibu, Maryland, Monterey, Nanning, New Hampshire, New Year's Day, New Year's Eve, New York, Old San Juan, Photography, Ping'An Village, Poets & Writers LIVE!, Ponce, Puerto Rico, Qing Xiu Shan, Reseda, Richmond, San Francisco, San Simeon, Santa Barbara, Sausalito, Seven Star Tea Plantation, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Sino-Vietnamese border, Solomons, Travel, United States of America, Venice, Venice Beach, Venice walk-streets, Ventura, Vermont, Vienna, Virginia, White Oak Canyon, Wine Country, Xianggong Hill, Xingping, Yangmei Ancient Town, Yangshuo, Yulong River | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

a trek to daxin ~ in transit to detian waterfall

Friday, October 24:  I have done a lot to prepare for my weekend trip to Ban Gioc – Detian Waterfall on the Sino-Vietnamese border.  Many of my colleagues have warned me about the various challenges I’ll encounter: “It’s not like Yangshuo; no one will speak English!”  “It was a nightmare!  It took us 7 hours to get there, we had 50 minutes to see the waterfall, then we had to be back on the bus for another 7 hours!” (This was on a one-day tour). “It’s not easy, the roads are bad.” “Most of my friends take the one day tour.” “Don’t take the one-day tour!”

Of course, I’m not to be deterred.  I spent last weekend making a list of all the places in the south of China and southeast Asia that I want to visit while I’m here, and as you can imagine, the list is extensive.  I have to get busy!  Plus it’s my birthday weekend, and I want an adventure to break up the drudgery of work.  I know the waterfall is only 245 km from Nanning, which doesn’t seem that far.  I think of how in Oman I’d drive 170 km from Nizwa to Muscat in a day, and sometimes even come back the same day.  I really can’t imagine how it can be that bad.  Of course, Oman is a country of only 2.7 million people whereas Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region alone has 46.8 million!

I have class until noon today, and my amazing student assistant Angela has secured a 2:00 bus ticket from Nanning’s Xi Xiang Coach Station to Daxin, a smallish town on the way to Detian.  Angela also did the research and booked a room for me at the Elido Hotel.  She wrote down in Chinese a lot of the information I would need along the way, such as the name of the bus station in Nanning (there are 3), the name of the bus station in Daxin, the name of the hotel, the onward ticket information from Daxin to Detian, etc.  She’s also told me to call her any time I need for her to talk to someone in Chinese.  Little does she know what she’s signing up for!

Vital information in Chinese from Angela

Vital information in Chinese from Angela

During the week, I also had some of my students write various places in Chinese in a little notebook, including the Langdong Bus Station on the east side of Nanning (where the one-day tour originates); Tongling Grand Canyon,  37 km from Detian, and Mingshi Scenic Area, also known as “Little Guilin,” which sits between Daxin and Detian. This is just in case I have time to see some other things.

Since my class ends at noon, I rush home, drop my books, pick up my already-packed bag, and walk to the front gate of the university, about 0.6 miles. There Angela has given me a list of buses to take to the bus station.  I walk across the huge street to the side where buses go into the city center, but luckily I don’t just get on one of the buses she’s listed.  I show random people the name of the bus station on my phone, and everyone points to the other side of the street, where buses head to the western outskirts of Nanning.  That makes more sense.  At the bus stop on the other side of the road, closest to the university, I ask around and people point out buses #76, #207 or #222.  Those numbers don’t match with Angela’s numbers at all.  I get on the #76 and arrive at the Xi Xiang Coach Station about 30 minutes later.  By this time it’s about 1:15, so I have about 45 minutes to spare.  Step one, done.

Since I don’t know the routine with the buses in China, and I’ve gotten mixed reviews, I have no idea if the bus will really take three hours, as scheduled, or if it will take longer, with numerous stops along the way.  I also have no idea how often, if at all, the bus stops for bathroom breaks.  As I tend to worry that I’ll have to go to the bathroom and won’t be able to, I don’t eat or drink anything for lunch today.

After we’re about an hour outside Nanning, the karst landscape magically appears.  It seems the karsts are everywhere in Guangxi except in Nanning.  In the Expressway median strip are tropical flowering bushes and trees in yellow, pink, and lavender.  Spiked leafy green plants jut up like wild hairdos between the flowering trees. The scenery is beautiful, but being on a bus, I can’t take any pictures that will be worth looking at.

This karst landscape surrounds us all the way to Daxin.  I imagine being on a bicycle here.  It’s just as pretty as Yangshuo, but less touristy and less crowded.  Fields of rice and sugar cane spread out in tidy patches around the towering limestone karsts.

When we leave the Expressway for two-lane rural roads, the flowering trees continue to line the roads all the way to Daxin.  It’s such a welcoming sight, this landscape.

It turns out the bus ride is exactly three hours, as advertised.  The bus makes no stops at any rest areas for general bathroom breaks. However, at one point during the drive, a mother drags her little girl to the front of the bus and the bus driver pulls over to let the little girl get out, squat in an open field, and pee into the grass in plain sight of everyone.

When I traveled by bus in South Korea, I finally figured out that bus drivers stopped every 2 hours for bathroom breaks.  This seemed to be a predictable schedule.  At this point in China, I still don’t know:  Do the buses EVER stop for bathroom breaks? How much time has to pass before they do stop?

When I arrive at Daxin bus station, I’m surprised at how nice and clean it is.  I was told Daxin is a small town, but somehow these towns in China don’t ever seem small.  Compared to Nanning it certainly is small.  But compared to what I think of a small town in America, like Bennington, Vermont for example, Daxin is not small. 

Getting off the bus, I head to the ticket window to buy a ticket for Detian Waterfall tomorrow (Saturday) morning.   I want to know the timetable and have my ticket so I can plan my morning.  I have “Detian Waterfall” written in several places, which I show to the ticket person.  She shoves my Chinese characters back at me and starts babbling in Chinese.  I wonder why she thinks I can understand her when I just showed her what I wanted in writing and obviously can’t speak any Chinese?  When I continue to stand at her window and point to my Chinese writing, she waves her hand as if to brush me away, and beckons to the person behind me to approach the window.  I’m shoved aside just like that.  There is no attempt to help me at all.

I don’t leave the window, so the people behind me crowd and slowly push me to the side.  I’m frustrated and angry at the woman’s rudeness.  I do what I had hoped not to do:  I call Angela.  At the next break in the tide of people, I push my phone at the woman and she and Angela have what turns out to be quite a long conversation.

Angela tells me that I don’t need to buy the ticket for Detian ahead of time.  The buses leave starting at 7:15 in the morning, and every hour thereafter, so I just show up and buy the ticket then.  Of course that means I’ll have to go through the same rigmarole in the morning.

I head outdoors to where the three-wheeled taxis are lined up.  I still happen to have Angela on the phone, so she tells the driver the name of the hotel, and I sit in the back of an open-air canopied truck bed on a side bench, behind a driver sitting on what looks like a motorbike.  I get dropped at my hotel for 5 yuan (less than a dollar).  I pick up the business card at the reception desk so I’ll have it in Chinese.  It says “Elido Hotles.”

I settle into my room, which isn’t too bad for 128 yuan a night, or less than $22.

My room at Elido "Hotles"

My room at Elido “Hotles”

The bathroom is simple and modern.

Fancy bathroom at my Daxin hotel

Fancy bathroom at my Daxin hotel

Since I haven’t eaten all day, I go out in search of a restaurant.  This is not Yangshuo, or even Nanning.  Yangshuo has most menus written in Chinese and English, with pictures as well.  Nanning sometimes has pictures, and sometimes things are written in English.  But here in Daxin, there are no pictures or English words.  I have no idea what to order.  It’s frustrating because I’m starving.  Of course I could eat; I could just sit at a table and point to something and hope for the best.  In China, that’s risky business.  You don’t know what you’ll get.  I try to ask one restaurant owner about a picture over her door that looks like it has vegetables and tofu.  My Pleco translation dictionary says it’s “doufu” in Pinyin.  I say the word, I show her the word.   All I get is a string of incomprehensible Chinese words and then she turns her back and walks away.

Finally, I return in defeat to the hotel.  There’s a restaurant on the second floor.  It’s a huge banquet restaurant with round tables covered in gold tablecloths.  The tables are huge, seating 10 people.  The restaurant is empty except for me, and I ask the hostess if I can eat.  She nods and shows me a menu.  Using Pleco, I ask if I can have vegetables.  She and another woman pull me back to the kitchen where all the vegetables are stored in refrigerators and plastic bins.  They pull out various vegetables to show me.  I point to some greens with tiny yellow flowers at the ends and some eggplant.

The ladies seat me at a huge banquet table all alone, bring a beer at my request, and then bring out the two cooked dishes.  A small sinewy Chinese man in a chef’s hat plops down at my table.  “Hello!” he says with a huge grin. I say, “Hello!  You speak English?”  “No, no,” he says, waving his hand back and forth. He just looks at me and smiles.  I guess it’s like me when I say “Ni hao.”  Because I say Hello in Chinese, people think I can speak Chinese, and start babbling away.

This meal is too much food for just me!  I’m hungry, and I make a grand effort, but I can no way finish all that food on my own.  In China, to not eat all my food always feels wasteful, and I hate leaving most of it behind.

After dinner, and before heading up to my room to relax, I try to ask the hotel receptionist if they have a hair dryer I can borrow.  I make a gesture like I’m drying my hair, and the woman pulls me outside and points down the street.  I say, “No, no, I don’t want to buy a hair dryer, I just want to borrow one,” but of course she can’t understand me.  She continues to point down the street.  Maybe she thinks I want to buy one, or maybe she’s pointing to a hair salon.  Who knows?  I should have thought to use my Pleco dictionary, but I didn’t.  I just thought she should be able to understand my hair-drying gesture, but I’m obviously not very good at Charades!

I head up to my room to relax and read and check out the array of strange Chinese TV shows. There’s nothing on of any interest, so I drift off in the cloud-like bed. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese language, Daxin, Detian Waterfall, Elido Hotel, Expat life, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Míngshì Tiányuán, Nanning, Sino-Vietnamese border, South Korea, Tongling Grand Canyon, Travel, Xi Xiang Coach Station | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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